Day 1: Getting Acquainted and Telling Environment Stories

Fellows arrived mid-day in Bemidji, MN and spent the afternoon getting to know each other and discussing journalism with the IJNR staff. 

Telling Environment Stories Better in the Digital Age

Natural resource stories are some of the hardest to fit into the usual journalism mold. Or, as our esteemed founder always put it, “they don’t break, they ooze.” Adding to the difficulty,  journalists have now traded the role of gatekeepers for one of sifters and winnowers in our digital world – finding facts in a deluge of information. We explored some of the difficulties of doing “good” journalism on complex issues, previewed some of the stories we’d encounter on our trip and talked tips and tricks for getting the most out of our own reporting and writing. We also explored useful tools that can help journalists investigate issues, tell stories better and reach a wider audience.

Day 2: Headwaters, Aquatic Research, Landscape Conversion, and River Engineering

The Birth of a Nation’s River

While it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where a river begins, an 18-foot wide, knee-deep outflow of Lake Itasca is generally accepted as the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Here in Minnesota’s oldest state park, 1,475 feet above sea-level and 2,552 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, we’ll walk (or wade) across the fledgling river and talk about resource management, conservation and outdoor recreation in the Mississippi headwaters. 

Scaling Up Water Research: Small-Watershed Studies Aim to Understand the Bigger Picture

Located in the middle of the Mississippi headwaters, the Shingobee Headwaters Aquatic Ecosystems Project is a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey and researchers from universities across the country. A pioneer in interdisciplinary research, SHAEP works to understand how processes in lakes, wetlands and streams interact and scale up to have watershed-level impacts. 

Will Change from Pine Plantations to Potato Plots Make the Headwaters Less Pristine? 

In the last five years, the Upper Mississippi River watershed has lost hundreds of square miles of forests, marshes and grasslands to agriculture and urban development. In fact, Minnesota leads the nation in wetland loss and is second in deforestation. The problem is forests, marshes and grasslands are natural features that promote better water quality while farm fields, lawns and parking lots generally have the opposite effect. Now some worry that agriculture and development in northern Minnesota’s cabin country could have the river struggling with issues – like nutrient pollution and sedimentation – that used to be hallmarks of the river much further downstream. 

Minnesota Headwaters Fund Aims to Protect Water Quality with In-The-Ground Investments

In 2015, The Nature Conservancy launched a three-year campaign to raise $10 million in private funds to pay for projects that demonstrate ways to protect and maintain good water quality.  As market dynamics sculpt the landscape and a changing forestry industry sells off of timberland while high corn prices encourage agricultural conversion, TNC hopes their program can help mitigate impacts to Minnesota rivers.

The River We Have Wrought

7 pm – Here in the Twin Cities, the Mississippi River transforms. Thanks to the 29 locks and dams that run from St. Anthony Falls to Cairo, Illinois, what we traditionally recognize as a river was turned into a series of connected slack-water pools in the 1930s. Since then, the river has been kept at a minimum depth of nine feet to keep the waterway navigable for barges primarily carrying agricultural commodities like corn and soybeans. We’ll spend an evening with the man who literally wrote the book on how past human pressures shaped the Mississippi and how present pressures are still shaping it.

Day 3: Reconnecting to and Restoring the River, Farm Bill 101, Soil Health

Reconnecting a Neighborhood to Its River

Minneapolis has one of the nation’s most celebrated public parks systems, partly due to forward-thinking founders who made sure space along Twin Cities waterways stayed in the public domain. More than 95% of both cities’ residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. But in North Minneapolis, where shipping and other industries historically claimed space on the river, local residents have been cut off from the Mississippi. A new development plan for an 11-mile stretch of shoreline hopes to change this story. As public and private entities work toward this vision, citizen groups are pushing for a more equitable and accessible urban park experience.

To see all of this for ourselves, we hopped aboard four Voyager canoes for a water-level view of the Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment plan.

Can the “Restore the Gorge” Movement Pan Out? 

The remnant of a much larger falls from more glaciated times, St. Anthony is still the most impressive waterfall on the entire Mississippi River. It’s also the site of the first of the 29 locks and dams that define the upper Mississippi and, among other things, flood the dramatic gorge that once cut through the Twin Cities. Today, the gorge is submerged beneath a large pool popular for rowing clubs, anglers and boaters. But in recent years, an idea to “restore the gorge” has surfaced. We discuss what it would mean for river ecology and invasive species that lurk downstream, and got out onto the lock and dam to see the falls for ourselves.

Getting into the Weeds on the Farm Bill

No document more profoundly shapes the Mississippi River watershed than the Farm Bill. As Congress continues to haggle over the 2018 version of the bill, we heard from a variety of stakeholders about conservation practices, agricultural trends and what they hope to see in the final bill.

Minnesota’s Buffer Law and New Advances in Soil Health

Some say Minnesota’s buffer law is the most onerous in the nation. Others call it progressive. Either way, the law reduces ag runoff and aims to keep soil where it belongs – on the farm. We hear about the law and new thinking in soil conservation, and we also had the opportunity to do some hands-on experiments that helped illustrate the stark differences between the ways healthy soil and unhealthy soil behave. 

Day 4: Sedimentary Evidence, Soil Health, and Sand Mining

Lake Pepin: Historical Record Keeper of Farm Practices Past

As settlers moved across America, cutting down forests and draining wetlands, soil suddenly became a major ingredient of surface water runoff into lakes and rivers. Lake Pepin, one of the world’s only natural lakes right in the middle of a major river, has borne witness to it all. In its mucky depths is buried the record of this history. We stopped for a lakeside chat about the science of sediment coring, how what happens on the farm often ends up in the lake and what this unique water body tells us about bigger-picture trends. 

Building Soil Health and Reducing Runoff

Sedimentation isn’t only a concern of water researchers – in fact, it’s high on the mind of many Minnesota farmers. We visited two farms in southeastern Minnesota that are vastly different in scale, but similar in concerns for minimizing their lands’ contribution to the Mississippi’s runoff problem. At Duane and Susie Hager’s place in Kellogg, we heard the philosophy that led them to minimize fertilizers and embrace soil health. Then at the Daley Farm of Lewiston, we saw how an operation with 1,500 dairy cows and nearly 4,000 acres of crop and pasture utilizes cover crops, water reuse systems and more to reduce their impact on the nearby Whitewater and Root River watersheds. 

A Tale of Two States: Sand Mining in Minnesota and Wisconsin

The boom in domestic production of oil and gas has generated a secondary boom in the mining of “frac” sand as mine companies seek out silica sand deposits with the perfect size and structure for propping open fissures in shale after it’s been hydraulically fracked. Like any extractive industry, frac sand mining has both economic benefits and environmental impacts. We first gathered at Farmer’s Park outside Lewiston, Minnesota to hear from citizens in Winona County who organized for and successfully passed the state’s first county-wide ban on frac sand mining. That decision was recently upheld in district court and is now being appealed by the company that owns mineral rights in Winona County, Minnesota Sands. 

Then we headed to Wisconsin, where the sand mining boom is in full swing and embraced by many as a driver of economic activity. However, a recent bulldozer accident at the Hi-Crush mine near Whitehall led to the draining of a retention pond, which released 10 million gallons of wastewater into the Trempealeau River, a tributary of the Mississippi. We got a bus-window tour of Wisconsin’s sand mine landscape, as well as a working mine.  

Day 5: Multiple-Use Management, River Restoration, and Coexisting with the Mississippi

Managing a Resource for Multiple Stakeholders and “Priority Public Uses”

We boarded a pontoon with representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy to tour Pool 8, the body of water created by the upstream Lock and Dam 7 and downstream Lock and Dam 8. Part of the Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the pool was created as a byproduct of maintaining consistent water levels for navigation but it is now managed to provide for public uses like hunting, fishing, boating and wildlife observation.  We talked with resource managers about how they accomplish this feat as we worked our way down the river. 

Success Stories in River Restoration and Lessons Learned from Long Term Monitoring

Authorized by the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, the Upper Mississippi River Restoration (UMRR) Program was the first environmental restoration and monitoring program undertaken on a large river system in the United States. Funded by a single line item from Congress, the UMRR, in addition to restoration projects, houses the Long Term Resource Monitoring program, which has conducted research and explored long-term trends on the river for the last few decades. We headed into the field to see current restoration projects and monitoring efforts. 

Build That Wall…Or Don’t: Davenport’s Novel Approach to Life on the River

Unlike most of its Mississippi River brethren, the City of Davenport, Iowa, turned down millions of dollars to build a flood wall, opting instead to live with the natural cycles of the river that provides commerce, tourism – and one heck of a downtown view. The river encroaches on Davenport periodically, but the city has removed homes, shored up buildings and dedicated most of its riverfront to park space, making the Old Man a welcome if unpredictable visitor. We stopped off at the city’s Nahant Marsh, itself a wildly biologically diverse byproduct of river flooding, to talk about the genesis of the city’s choice. Then we headed over to Modern Woodmen Park, home of the minor-league Quad Cities River Bandits baseball team to hear from city and civic leaders about how Davenport operates with occasional wet ankles.

Day 6: Drinking Water, Nitrates, and Innovations in Farming

Everything Flows Downstream: Clean Drinking Water in an Agricultural Watershed

 In 2015, the Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit against upstream drainage districts, claiming that they were sending water heavily polluted with nitrates, a nutrient commonly found in fertilizer and pig manure, into the city’s source water in the Root River. While that lawsuit was eventually dismissed, it brought to light a growing problem in a state where 92 percent of the land is farm land – runoff from ag is contaminating water supplies and municipal water districts are paying the price of getting that water back to acceptable quality for human consumption. We heard how two cities – Des Moines and Cedar Rapids – have worked with upstream communities to reduce runoff into their source water supplies. 

Nitrates 101: Where They Come from, How They Move and Human Health Impacts

In an effort to better understand problem areas for nitrate pollution and the hydrology of how the nutrient ends up in Iowa waterways, the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa developed the Iowa Water Quality Information System, a real-time map of stream-monitoring data and nitrate levels. Many see the work being done at the Flood Center as vitally important to human health as some studies have linked nitrates in drinking water to issues like ovarian cancer and birth defects. 

Cover Crops, Bioreactors and Precision Guidance Tractors: Modern Farming Tackles Its Nitrate Problem

In a state where 92 percent of the land is cropland or pasture, taking land out of agriculture seems unlikely – which means that the solutions to Iowa’s water woes lies somewhere on the farm. Some farmers have embraced this challenge and are adopting practices unheard of when their parents ran the show. We headed to Washington County, which leads the state in the number of acres of cover crops planted and visit a farm using cover crops, pollinator plantings and the county’s first bioreactor – a low-tech way of removing nitrates from the water draining off corn and soybean fields. We also visited with a farmer who has embraced a more high-tech solution, using precision guidance systems on his tractors to apply fertilizers more efficiently and hear about his new idea to grow barley as a cover crop that he can then use to feed his hogs.  

Day 7: Levees, Flooding - Intentional and Otherwise, and the Lock & Dam System

When the Waters Rise: Ins and Outs of the Mississippi River Levee System  

The idea sounds simple: If you don’t want a river flooding your town or farm field, just build a ridge high enough to keep it out. The hydrology is much more complicated, however, and towns and cropland once thought safe from the whims of the Mississippi now routinely see  100- or 500-year floods swamp the land behind the levees. What are some weaknesses in the system and what are projections for future high-water scenarios? Are the levees designed to prevent flooding actually making things worse? 

Pushing the Problem Downstream

We gathered in Hannibal, MO to hear about the levee system that stands between the town and the next big flood. For years, residents fought various iterations of Army Corps flood-control proposals that called for building up levees all along the Upper Mississippi except for St. Charles, Lincoln and Pike Counties. Instead, buyouts of flood-prone properties were proposed.  While those plans never passed, some upstream levee districts have moved ahead anyway – like the one right across the river. Tasked with protecting the farmland and small communities on their side of the Mississippi, some Illinois levee districts routinely break federal law and raise the height of their levees, pushing water onto downstream communities and spurring them to, in turn, raise their own levees. We discussed what’s at stake in these “levee wars,” and what it’s like to live in a community having flood waters shoved its way. 

When the Levee Breaks – On Purpose

Established in 1964 with funds from the purchase of migratory waterfowl stamps, The Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge covers 3,750 acres of Mississippi River floodplain and is almost entirely surrounded by a levee. But here the idea is to let some water back on to the land. A pump station is used to create seasonal flooding that mimics natural flow patterns to restore floodplain habitat and benefit migratory birds.  

Locks, Dams and Really Large Ships: Managing Water Levels and Mitigating Floods

Alton, IL is home to the largest developed floodplain north of New Orleans – nearly $19 billion in industrial, commercial and residential assets – which sits behind a floodwall built to provide a 500-year flood level of protection. We spent the afternoon at the Melvin Price Lock and Dam, which, completed in 1994 to replace an aging Lock and Dam 26, is the newest structure in the system. We learned how the Lock and Dam system tries to manage water levels and shipping and recreational expectations, and hear concerns about aging infrastructure and why commercial navigation interests would love longer locks. We also got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Melvin Price Lock and Dam.

Day 8: Conservation, Urban Resilience, and Mississippi Overview

For the Birds (and Fish and Turtles and People and Plants…) 

Located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary is 3,700 acres of water, prairie and woodland managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ rivers project office. It is also home to a partnership with the Audubon Society and is HQ for the Audubon Center at the Riverlands, a flagship project of the National Audubon Society and Audubon Missouri. We learned about the partnership first-hand, as we headed out into the field to see current research and conservation efforts and get our own feet wet in the sanctuary.  

There Goes the Neighborhood: How St. Louis Aims to Build Resilience with Wrecking Balls and Rain Gardens

St. Louis’s population has fallen by nearly half over the last half century, sending the city scrambling to keep up with vacant properties. Some within the city see a silver lining to all this abandoned real estate – an opportunity to begin to address systemic flooding that occurs in many neighborhoods during heavy rains. Together, the city and the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, with funding from the Missouri Department of Conservation, have launched the Urban Greening Program, a plan to tear down 1,000 structures over the next five years and replace them with green infrastructure installations, like rain gardens, that will retain surface water runoff and, hopefully help keep basements dry in the houses that remain. Many residents wish the city were working on fixing up existing structures and getting people back into the neighborhoods, but the city counters that this is the first step in promoting new development and reinvestment.

A Big Picture View of Big Muddy, from Tiny River Towns to a Giant of Global Commerce

Before we put the notepads and recorders away and simply celebrate a successful expedition downriver, we took a stab at putting everything we’d heard in perspective. Where does the nation’s largest river fit in the bigger picture of international commerce and the world’s food supply? What challenges do the communities that line its banks share in common? Can a resource that runs the length of the country be managed in a way that’s acceptable to all of its users?